Monday, August 24, 2009

A LabourStart interview of interest to PortsideLabor?

LabourStart interview with Steve Early, author of Embedded With Organized Labor: Journalistic Reflections on the Class War at Home (new from Monthly Review Press)

In your book, you discuss at length the question of books for trade unionists and acknowledge that these often have very small press runs and poor sales. Why do you think that is true and what can be done to improve the situation?
The failure to promote more book reading and discussion among union members reflects the decline of labor education generally here. University-based programs are under budgetary attack or political siege. Major unions have scaled back their education departments, and the AFL-CIO closed its down. Much "leadership training" today is focused on grievance-handling, contract negotiations, and union administration, with sub-specialties being the mechanics of political action and organizing. I note in Embedded that there's an important larger context for trade union work. There are things you better know about the economy, industry, occupation or profession you're operating in. Many useful studies have been published on the problems of immigration and globalization, "lean manufacturing," and other forms of corporate and workplace restructuring. Some of these books describe current and past debates about union structures and strategies that might be more effective than the ones we're using today. Unfortunately, such work doesn't reach a big enough audience. As a result, we don't have the kind of on-going exchange between activists and intellectuals that would be benefit both. Unions could easily do more LabourStart-type promotion of books and periodicals, using all the new on-line tools available. Union educators should, wherever possible, incorporate books on strikes, organizing, labor history, political economy, and social policy into membership education. And we need to revive other vehicles for doing this as well, like local book clubs or workplace study circles. "Reading, writing, and union-building" should not be limited to the small number of "adult learners" able to participate in degree-granting labor studies programs.

You also discuss the question of union democracy which you see as being central to the growth of trade unions and their effectiveness. Do you see unions in the US today as growing more democratic or less so? Is there a fight taking place as there was in the 1970s and 1980s which you describe in the book, that might lead to greater democracy in some unions?
My own initial union work in the 1970s involved miners, steelworkers, and teamsters. The UMW, USWA, and IBT bureaucracies of that era were all dangerously calcified. The union officialdom was inaccessible and unresponsive, often incompetent, and, in the case of the Mine Workers and Teamsters, prone to corruption, violence, and intimidation. Workers paid a heavy price for this organizational decay. Often, it was the members, not management, who got muscled by their own union leaders and staff. Job conditions and contracts began to deteriorate due to this lack of democratic accountability.

Today, I'm sorry to report, we're seeing similar problems again, in one very high-profile union, the Service Employees International Union. SEIU has a reputation, here and abroad, for being "progressive." But, in California, the vast majority of its 600,000 members are now in huge, mega-locals run by International union trustees and other appointees, who operate in very high-handed fashion. Many rank-and-filers are not happy about this, because day-to-day representation is suffering. Some are fighting back by organizing a rival union, in the health care industry. Others are using the approach of industrial union dissidents in the '70s. They're building a reform network, running candidates in union elections, and hoping to change SEIU from within.

Your coverage of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) is very positive, but in the end, the TDU was kicked out of power. What do you think went wrong?
TDU continues to be an inspiring model -- among SEIU reformers, for example -- because of its sheer durability. No other opposition caucus that started in the mid-70s, on a national basis, is still alive and kicking.
TDU-backed candidates, on slates led by Tom Leedham, have regularly gotten 35 to 40% of the vote in referendum elections for the top leadership. The group still fosters effective local reform caucuses and organizes activist networks that put pressure on Teamster negotiators and benefit fund trustees. The existence of a de facto "two party" system -- in what was previously labor's most formidable "one-party state" -- keeps incumbents on their toes and reflects a changed political culture.
TDU, of course, wielded its greatest influence during the six years that the late Ron Carey was IBT president. One monument to the success of its bottom up approach was the Teamster strike victory at UPS in 1997. The union election fundraising scandal that led to Carey's removal (but not his conviction on any criminal charges) was a terrible post-strike setback. But TDU has never been focused solely on capturing union office for its members or allies. It really is committed to promoting "rank-and-file power" as an alternative to business union practices. The Carey Administration involved an alliance between radicals, reformers, and more conservative elements. Partners in any ruling coalition who are, like TDU, smaller, more principled players have to figure out how to function effectively, both inside and outside the corridors of power. It's a difficult political role to play, in national governments and unions.
Do you expect the Change to Win unions to merge back in to the AFL-CIO? Would this be a good thing?
The attempted reconfiguration or unification of the AFL-CIO, Change To Win, and the previously unaffiliated National Education Association is an on-going process. It's complicated because the large unions involved are trying to develop a new structure for financing and coordinating legislative/political activity and other joint functions as well. Other interested parties -- including smaller unions and the AFL officialdom -- are more preoccupied with maintaining existing bureaucratic structures and determining who succeeds John Sweeney as AFL president, when he finally retires in September.
As an unrepentant left syndicalist, I tend to be a little subdued in my enthusiasm for top-down restructuring schemes. The hype (and hysteria) surrounding the Change To Win split four years ago got way overblown, just as the unveiling of any new "federation of feds" will probably be the subject of much "irrational exuberance" later this year too. Meanwhile, "back at the ranch" -- ie in workplaces and local union halls–workers face a give-back trend that's almost as bad as it was in the 1980s. Encouraging grassroots resistance to contract concessions doesn't seem to be a big focus of inside-the-Beltway labor re-unifiers. So, if what they come up with, in the end, doesn't help workers mobilize and win future contract fights and strikes, the appeal of unionization will continue to dim. Short term, some kind of organizational repackaging may enable labor to deal with Obama and the Democrats in less fragmented fashion. But, if union members are divided, demoralized, and beaten down by a series of workplace defeats in the meantime, where’s the big stick behind the new united front?
You wrote favorably about Tony Mazzocchi and the launch of the U.S. Labor Party back in the mid-1990s, but you admit that nothing much ever came of it. Do you think there will ever be an independent labor party in the U.S.?
I was among those Tony fans who thought the Labor Party needed to find a way to relate to electoral politics, sooner rather than later, and not just function as a discussion group, as important as that was. Three years ago, here in Massachusetts, a union coalition made an unsuccessful attempt to re-legalize fusion voting, or cross-endorsement of candidates. We tried to start a Working Families Party that might have been able to use this election law change to gain greater leverage over local Democrats by encouraging union member voting on a WFP ballot line -- for endorsed Democrats worthy of support, for the WFP's own candidates, or a cross-endorsed WFP/Green candidate.
Despite the defeat of our "ballot freedom" initiative (and the local languishing of WFP ever since), I still think fusion is one way to promote greater labor voter independence, while minimizing the problem of perpetual third party marginalization, under our two-party dominated system. Anyway, it's one place to start. Outside of Vermont with its Progressive Party, we don't have many state and local examples today of pure third party candidates actually getting elected mayor, city council member, or state legislator, much less to any federal office. Union activists are not going to break with the Democrats until they start seeing those kind of victories and a more reliable, pro-labor stance by third-party office holders.
To learn more or order you copy of Embedded with Organized Labor, visit:
labor alike.

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